Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) launched an all-out assault on the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice yesterday in an attempt to block her from becoming the next Secretary of State. McCain claims that Rice’s role in disseminating information about the attacks on U.S. assets in Benghazi, Libya in September means she’s “not qualified” to be the nation’s top diplomat. Because of these alleged missteps on Benghazi, McCain said, “I will do everything in my power to block her from becoming Secretary of State.”
But the evidence to back up McCain’s attacks on Rice is thin, if non-existant. Below is a list of McCain’s main attacks on Rice, and why they’re either false or misleading:
1. McCain attacks Rice for saying anti-Islam video may have sparked Benghazi attack. Referring to Rice’s suggestion on Sept. 16 that the Benghazi attacks may have been sparked by animosity over an anti-Islam video, the Arizona Republican claimed yesterday on Fox News that Rice “went out and told the American people something that was patently false and defied common sense.” He added on CNN: “It was obvious to one and all that this was not a ‘spontaneous demonstration’ because in real time, they saw there was no demonstration.”
REALITY: Rice was merely repeating U.S. intelligence assessments. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that CIA talking points on the Benghazi attack dated Sept. 15, or the day before Rice’s Sunday show appearances, stated that “[t]he currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex.”
And this is exactly what Rice said, for example, on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sept. 16. “Soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in.”
And on Sept. 16, Rice did not, as McCain suggests, offer a definitive assessment of what took place. In fact, she cautioned that it could change after an investigation. “[T]here’s an FBI investigation which is ongoing,” she said. “And we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired.”
2. McCain says the anti-Islam video had nothing to do with the Benghazi attack. In his attempt to discredit Rice, McCain claimed on CNN last night that Rice’s assessment that the attack in Benghazi was sparked by a “spontaneous demonstration” against an anti-Islam video is “totally false.”
REALITY: It is still unclear what started the Benghazi assault. The New York Times reported last month that the attackers “did tell bystanders that they were attacking the compound because they were angry about the video.”
3. McCain says U.S. officials knew immediately that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the Benghazi attack. The Arizona senator claimed yesterday that “[e]verybody knew that it was an al Qaeda attack and she continued to tell the world through all of the talk shows [on Sept. 16] that it was a ‘spontaneous demonstration’ sparked by a video.”
REALITY: Al-Qaeda’s involvement is still speculation; attack and anti-Islam video demonstration are not mutually exclusive . The event could both have been a terror attack and inspired by a demonstration against an anti-Islam video. These two factors are not mutually exclusive and Rice said as much on Sept. 16. Moreover, definitive proof has yet to emerge that the Benghazi attackers were affiliate with Al-Qaeda.
4: McCain says Rice’s Sept. 16 talking points did not originate from U.S. intelligence agencies. Some reporters have tried to inform McCain that Rice was merely giving the public information that American intelligence services provided her, but he seems to refuse to believe that the whole affair is anything but political. “Her talking points came from the White House, not from the DNI,” McCain said last night on CNN, referring to the Director of National Intelligence. “I think it’s patently obvious that the talking points that Ambassador Rice had didn’t come from the CIA. It came from the White House,” McCain said on Fox.
REALITY: Rice’s Sept. 16 assessment of the Benghazi attack matched CIA and DNI analysis at that time. As noted above, Rice’s Sept. 16 statements mirror the CIA’s Sept. 15 assessment and the DNI’s office said a week later that just after the Sept. 11 attack, “there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests” and that it “provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available.” If Rice’s talking points came from the White House, officials there didn’t alter them much from what the intelligence agencies were saying.
McCain wants a special Watergate-style investigation into the Benghazi attacks, but lawmakers, including many of his Republican colleagues, appear to be satisfied with letting the ongoing investigations take their course. It also turns out that many Republicans in the Senate aren’t too keen on pre-judging Rice either, should the President nominate her. And if McCain was really interested in getting the facts about Benghazi, he could have attended yesterday’s closed door hearing on the matter instead of holding a press conference attacking Rice and Obama.
So it’s clear that McCain’s real problem here is with Obama, and on that point, the president suggested that McCain give him a call. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said yesterday. “And I’m happy to have that discussion with them.”